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A House Jump

by Joe Gutkoski (MSO '50) |

During September 1951, the fall rains began and Fred Brauer had the un pleasant job of telling us hangers-on that we were terminated.

This was a sad time for dyed-in-the-wool jumpers. No more paychecks and no more food. We had to get out of our barracks at Fort Missoula and face the daunting prospect of looking for legitimate jobs with the wind, rain and wet snow in our faces.

I had purchased a backpack and chestpack (WWII vintage) from loft foreman Glen (Smitty) Smith for $100.00. Smitty also threw into the deal a soft leather pilot's helmet and a quick course in parachute rigging.

Much free - falling was done by smokejumpers in those days. Jack Knott and Dave Burt, both riggers, and Stan Sykes were the premier jumpers. They used two chestpacks, and a backpack. They would crack the top chest pack, float under the canopy for a few seconds so those on the ground could see them then release one of the risers, creating a streamer. They would then break away from the streamer and fall free for about 1,000 feet before cracking the backpack, and then landing.

Unfortunately, I aspired to be one of them. Little was known about a spread-eagle position, although we knew the German paratroopers used it during their static line jumps. A free fall usually resulted in a head down position, a tumble or a flat spin, which were not the best opening positions. A French jumper was experimenting with a balsa wood wing, but he needed the large door of a Douglas C-4 7 to get out of the plane. I later heard he was killed while experimenting with one of his contraptions.

At the time of my first free fall, the Forest Service had recently restricted smoke: jumpers from free-falling while on the payroll. Officials were suspicious of previously sprained ankles anJd hairline fractures that were blamed on fire jumps.

I asked squad leader Gar Thorsrud to spot me over Hale field near Missoula, then site of Johnson Flying Service and now the location of Missoula County Sentinel High School, Vo -Tech and Adult Education facilities. It was a Friday afternoon around 5 P.M. and my last day on the Forest Service payroll. I hired one of Rob Johnson's old Travel Air's. Gar and I took off with the pilot. I wanted Gar to drop me at 2,000 feet, and I would delay opening for 1,000 feet. Gar tossed out a drift chute at opening altitude to see what the ground wind was doing, and then we climbed to 2,000 feet for the spotting run. A brisk ground wind was blowing so Gar gave me a good lead for a 1,000 feet opening. I had a lot of fear when I sat in the door (no step) and slid my backside toward the edge, with my legs dangling out side, so that, with a little nudge, I would be out and clear of the plane.

Two thousand feet seemed very high from what I was used to during practice and fire jumps.

The moment came, and Gar said "Go!" Away I went and didn't fall very far (chickened out) before I looked down at my rip cord handle, then reached up and pulled it. The opening was hard and just about jerked me in two. I checked to see if my anus and intestines were still intact. I then looked up at my fully deployed canopy and breathed a sigh of relief. So far so good. I faced into the strong wind and did not become alarmed until I realized I was being blown across the airport and towards the blocks of homes east of Hale Field. I told myself, "You did not delay the opening long enough, you dumb bastard." Soon, I was drifting over one block of houses, and looking backwards under my right armpit, saw a power line coming up.

At that point, I turned the canopy, facing the direction I was being blown and drifted over the power line. Then I noticed a big picture window ahead of me, coming up fast. Luckily, I missed it and landed on the roof of the house, hitting it hard, with my head snapping forward and down onto the sloping roof. I was dressed in a sweatshirt, black jeans and the thin pilot's helmet. The canopy filled with air and dragged me over the roof ridgeline and down over the other side, where I came plunging off the roof and onto the concrete driveway below.

A lady opened the kitchen door, took one look and ducked back into the house. She soon reappeared with a glass of water, and I gladly took a drink. I needed it! She was a very perceptive lady. Her husband stepped out, looking for the plane crash after hearing the loud thump on his roof. He thought I had bailed out of a stricken aircraft. My pilot's helmet was still on. At about that time, my handlers showed up with a vehicle and got me out of there before I was sued for roof damage.

I went undercover in Denny Swift's and Dave Owen's apartment to heal my bruises, then left Missoula for Oregon in my 1935 Chevy and found a job as a brakeman on the Union Pacific Railroad out of La Grande. This was prior to the establishment of a smokejumper base there.

I fell in love with a Mormon girl in La Grande, and since she thought parachutes were neat, almost married her. She worked for her Dad at a restaurant.

In the spring of 1952 I went back to smokejumping, was detailed to Deming, New Mexico and then returned to Missoula in July. It was a good fire season and I made 15 fire jumps that year.